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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Thursday, May 31, 2018

Concert Review: The Ghosts of Conductors Past

The MET Orchestra and Gianandrea Noseda play the Mahler Fifth.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Gianandra Noseda in action.
Photo by Ramella and Giannese, courtesy Teatro Regio di Torino
There is no ensemble that has a bigger target on its back this spring than the MET Orchestra. After a tumultuous season at the Metropolitan Opera that included the explosion of a long-building sex scandal involving former music director James Levine, the firing of Mr. Levine (after a 47-year association) and a subsequent flurry of lawsuits that have kept the opera company in the headlines, it would be surprising if the shell-shocked players had the enthusiasm and focus for the three-concert series that ends the current Carnegie Hall season.

That series was Mr. Levine's creation, and was the vehicle for his much ballyhooed comeback in 2013. It was intended to show that the Met's crack pit troops could play anything put in front of them. However, with Mr. Levine's sudden and seemingly final exit, this spring's concerts (and their accompanying changes in program) have felt a little scattered. Wednesday night featured guest conductor Gianandrea Noseda at the helm, who has conducted several major operas at the house and until recently led the Teatro Regio di Torino. However, this program of Mozart and Mahler seemed drawn from his other job: music director the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington D.C.

The first half of this program featured Canadian violinist James Ehnes playing Mozart's Violin Concerto No. 5 nicknamed the "Turkish." His crisp playing and the energetic accompaniment of the Met players proved a most comfortable fit, with the high, clear tone of his instrument singing forth over brisk and enjoyable tempi. Mr. Levine's influence (and love of Mozart) was writ all over this performance, and Mr. Noseda took real pleasure in having this fancy and well-tuned machine to drive through the three movements. The orchestra were at their playful best in the final movement, when Mozart calls for col legno accompaniment: the tap of bow-backs on wood evoking the percussive nature of Turkish music. 

Mr. Noseda took a stool in the double bass section for two solo encores by the violinist. Audience members raced for seats in a kind of reverse musical chairs for these, which proved to be movements from two of Bach's Violin Sonatas. First was the finale from Sonata No. 3, taken at a daringly fast tempo. It was followed by the much more somber, but no less lovely second movement from the Sonata No. 2. This was some of the most refreshing and pleasant music making of the night.

That atmosphere was banished, and rather abruptly, by the funereal trumpet-call that opens Mahler's Symphony No. 5. This was a raw and experimental approach to this symphony, with Mr. Noseda taking the opening dirge at a surprisingly fast tempo. More troubling: the big dissonant climaxes of this movement, that supply all of the existential dread necessary for a successful performance seemed muffled and blurred. The orchestra did not seem to be on the same page with their temporary chief here, and even the final terrifyingly quiet thud of a coffin-lid at the movement's end proved anticlimactic. 

The second movement was weird too: a disjointed ride through Mahler's carnival imagination. Mr. Noseda was unusually slow here, and the overall effect was erratic without being particularly inspired. Only the rising horn chorale, with the Met players leather-lunged from doing all that Wagner and Strauss, provided a ray of light. The central Scherzo, one of Mahler's most experimental movements had moments of raw melodic beauty, particularly a soft, plucked section where the giant orchestra yields to the sound of a small chamber ensemble. 

Redemption was on the way in the form of the Adagietto, an out-and-out love song for the string section that assured this most disjointed of Mahler symphonies a place in the standard repertory. Mr. Noseda eased back and let the orchestra sing to him, only to resume his tight control in the finale. It was needed, as this merry, whirling movement shows Mahler flirting with the spirit, if not the letter of 18th century fugue in the post-classical manner of late Brahms. This movement ends with the return of that spectacular chorale theme, which rose in glory and beauty from the horns, trumpets and heavy brass to produce a sunny and quirky finish. 

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